07/12/2012 12:47 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2012

Follow the Cow Path to User Adoption

In recent weeks I've been thinking more about an old article I read about UC Berkeley's campus paths and how they directly relate to workplace solutions and product architecture today. For those unfamiliar, as is the case at many campuses, parks, and other public spaces, grounds crews put in asphalt paths and encourage users to stick to the set patterns to get to common destinations. However, as many people can clearly relate, users begin creating cattle paths or "desire lines" (worn avenues in the grass areas) that more directly link them to their chosen Point B. In his essay, "Commercial Success By Looking for Desire Lines," Carl Myhill theorizes that cow paths are analogous to successful corporate strategy, product development and subsequent adoption. In my mind, this analogy so strongly applies to the benefits of social business applications and the history of mobile app adoption thus far that I wanted to break my view down into a few salient points.

Resistance is futile

As I've said before, not deploying mobile and social as key components of your business processes is like banning the Internet 5-10 years ago. The acquisitions of late by Oracle, and Microsoft point to the industry as being beyond the sea change. A company's ability to capitalize on the collaboration, productivity gains, and lead gen that social tools create (and exponentially increase when mobilized) is the differentiator between success and failure in the near future. Don't try to herd your employees with easy to navigate barricades a la grounds crews and their fences -- acceptance is the first step -- many of your employees will work around your limitations, if forced.

Listen to users

Many institutions ultimately embrace user habits to design path systems for their green spaces. This aligns with the argument, made by Chris Bucholtz of CRMOutsiders in his article last month, "Ignoring Input from Users: a Great Shortcut to go from CRM Decision to Adoption Failure." He states, based on a dialogue with an integrator, that, "the ideal way to prevent a misalignment between the front-line users and the executives was to make sure front-line users were included on the CRM selection team." By listening to users who are a representative sample of other users' habits and who frequent the open space, the grounds crews are able to select the best locations for paved paths. By validating user opinions they're also more likely to advocate for the paths that are built. Everyone wins.

Aesthetics are important
No institution wants a network of carefully laid paths with a bunch of ruddy dirt paths darting here and there. That doesn't keep users or the space safe and it doesn't help with fundraising. Apply that logic to your business processes -- no one wants a carefully laid out set of tools and rules with a bunch of rogue users adopting their own tools to meet their needs (and corrupt other users to do the same). That doesn't keep your corporate network or data safe, nor does it protect users from themselves. Disorganization can lead to missed opportunities internally and externally -- looks count.

By actively incorporating social and mobile capabilities into core processes your business will run better, employees will be happier, productivity will increase, and IT's hairball will be reduced. Listening to your employees about which of these new tools they are already using and sharing with their colleagues will allow you to provide an elegant, integrated, effective system of solutions that users want to adopt and further evangelize. The cow path is only a bad thing if you didn't ask the cows what they thought about the paths in the first place.